Iranian identity: proud of the past, disconnected from the present

Illustration by Rana Nikkholgh

Illustration by Rana Nikkholgh -

For some Iranians, the word “Persian” transcends geography. Although Persians represent one of several ethnic groups that make up the Islamic Republic of Iran, the word is also commonly used as a synonym for Iranian.

Navid Pishvaei

Navid Pishvaei

By using the word “Persian”, individuals like social worker Hossein Kia keep their cultural origin as part of their identity without establishing a connection with Iran and its politics.

A fundamental part of the Persian culture is Farsi, or Persian, a language spoken in Iran and other countries that have been under Persian influence. Keeping this traditional language and culture alive can be difficult in the West.

Kia, who was born in Spain and came to Canada as a child with his Iranian mother and grandparents has been with through the struggle of maintaining the Persian language and culture.

“My identity really depends on the circumstance,” says Kia. “At the workplace, I identify myself more with Canadians, but in my family life the Persian culture is very important.”

Hoosein Kia and friends

Hoosein Kia and friends

In his mother’s home, where Farsi has always been the official language, Kia’s admiration for Iranian literature and history grew throughout his childhood. Today, Kia openly says that he takes pride in being Persian, just as many other Iranian immigrants across Canada do.

Since the September 11 attacks, Hossein Kia claims to have perceived an increase in racism and prejudice towards Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. That only strengthens his sentimental ties to his cultural origins even more, but that is not the case for everyone.

“I’ve noticed a polarization among Iranians,” says Kia. “They are either very committed to their cultural background or they show a complete rejection of it.”
For journalist Ramin Mahjouri, everybody who travels to Iran has some paranoia regarding their comments on politics. “I can’t go back to Iran because they would kill me, so I say whatever I want.”

Ramin Mahjouri

Ramin Mahjouri

Mahjouri left Iran in 1983, four years after the Iranian Revolution and at the height of the Iraq-Iran War. His exile began on horseback as he traveled across Iran’s mountainous northern region, into neighbouring Turkey. It was a dangerous journey that required time and large sums of money in order to be smuggled across the boarder.

“Parents would sell their cars or houses to get their kids out of the country,” he explains. “It was too dangerous for people at my age to stay there.” Mahjouri was 18 years old when he arrived in Canada as a refugee with only $20 in his pocket.

He now works for the Paivand Media Group in West Vancouver. The group runs a national newspaper as well as shows for radio and television in Farsi. Mahjouri estimates that between 70,000 and 80,000 Iranians live in Vancouver. This is a smaller figure than in Toronto, where his estimates are between 200,000 and 250,000 people.

Within this Canadian community, Iranians still have some characteristics in common. For Kia, there are both positive and negative stereotypes. According to him, Iranians are often said to be family-oriented and warm, as well as materialistic and conservative.

Mahjouri describes Iranians as generally hospitable and great admirers of poetry, and Iranian-born Novid Pishvaei agrees.

“Most Iranian people I know have a good reputation and are well-educated, so they have a better chance than people from many other nationalities to succeed in Canada.”

Pishvaei’s story sounds familiar. His older brother came to Canada more than a decade ago and was followed years later by the rest of the family, mostly for political reasons. In his last visit to Iran, three years ago, he noticed significant changes. “Especially the youth is better than before, more open-minded.” Pishvaei has more to tell, but prefers not to have his expressed political opinion published.

Ramin Mahjouri is straightforward: “The Iranian pride is torn by their present government. That’s exactly why Iranians take pride in their past.” He alleges that what can be considered the world’s first charter of human rights was written by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great six centuries before Christ. “But today,” he says, “the government of Iran is the worst in human rights.”

On March 24, people of Iranian origin will celebrate the Persian New Year at the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel in downtown Vancouver. The event is being held by the Canadian Iranian Foundation and starts at 6:30 p.m. To find more information or buy tickets contact 604-696-1121 or